Dayton, Ohio Matt Dickey and the Bulldogs were quite an opening act on the NCAA tournament's expanded stage, one that has more teams in the brackets and — so far — the same March drama on the court.
Dickey led a late run that brought overtime, and J.P. Primm hit five free throws and had a decisive steal in the closing seconds, sending UNC Asheville to an 81-77 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in a dramatic "First Four" opener on Tuesday night.
"I'll tell you what, I couldn't be happier with the city of Dayton," coach Eddie Biedenbach said.
There wasn't time for a curtain call. The Bulldogs (20-13) quickly headed to the airport for a charter flight to Washington, D.C., where they'll play Pittsburgh — the Southeast's top seed — on Thursday. The Bulldogs had never flown a charter before this week, and joked they felt "presidential" on their trip to Dayton.
"We're going to feel presidential again, and we're going to D.C.," Primm said. "So it's going to feel even better."
UNC Asheville pulled it out with a tournament-worthy performance by its best player. The Bulldogs led for only 51 seconds in regulation, before Dickey asserted himself. He scored 14 of the Bulldogs' last 18 points in regulation, including a 3 with 10.5 seconds to go that tied it.
Dickey, who was the Big South tournament's MVP, took only two shots in the first half.
"I came in at halftime and they kept telling me to keep being aggressive, my shots will start falling," Dickey said. "I started getting open looks, my shot started falling and it felt good."
Primm and Dickey had 22 points apiece.
Alex Garcia-Mendoza matched his career high with 21 points for Arkansas-Little Rock (19-17). The Trojans played overtime without Solomon Bozeman, the Sun Belt's player of the year who fouled out with 55 seconds to go in regulation. He finished with 18 points.
Each year, the tournament turns into a big stage looking for a star. Dickey became the first to take the spotlight.
"He made some big plays coming off ball screens," Bozeman said. "We weren't able to contain him."
The shooting guard asserted himself with nine minutes left, leading the late surge that culminated in his 3-pointer from the left corner. Primm had missed a 3, but the Bulldogs got the rebound and passed it around to Dickey, who was open and didn't hesitate.
"I didn't know how much time was left on the clock," he said. "I was pretty sure it was under 15 or 20 seconds."
Matt Mouzy missed a potential tying 3 at the buzzer, sending it to overtime.
There were five lead changes in overtime, the last coming on Primm's two free throws that made it 78-77 and put the Bulldogs in position to win yet another overtime tournament game in Dayton.
The Bulldogs also opened in Dayton in 2003, when they became the first Big South team to win an NCAA tournament game. They went to overtime to beat Texas Southern 92-84 in a one-game play-in for the 65-team field.
UNC Asheville received a key to their city last week for making it back to the NCAA tournament, something they'd done only one other time in school history.
Imagine what kind of greeting they can expect back home now.
Players had trouble sleeping the night before they got on their charter flight and headed to Dayton to become a footnote to NCAA tournament history. They were the opening act in the "First Four" — four games over two days at the University of Dayton Arena, part of an expanded 68-team field.
And they did it with a few tournament-worthy moments: Unexpected 3s, no-look passes and overtime drama.
"We're playing really good now and it feels good to go to the second round," Dickey said.
Both teams had a leading player coming off an MVP tournament. Dickey averaged 19.7 points during the Big South tournament. Bozeman got the same honors in the Sun Belt, hitting a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left that brought the championship.
With the Trojans needing another big shot on Tuesday, he could only sit and watch as Dickey and Primm pulled it out.